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20 October 2017 21:55 (South Africa)
South Africa

Phone tapping scandals pandemic: Big Brother’s watching and nobody seems to care

  • Stephen Grootes
    Grootes for DM.jpg
    Stephen Grootes

    Grootes is the host of the Midday Report on 702 and Cape Talk, and the Senior Political Correspondent for Eyewitness News. He's been part of the political hack pack since before the Polokwane Tsunami, and covers politics in a slightly obsessive manner. Those who love him have recommended help for his politics addiction. He quotes Amy Winehouse.

  • South Africa
GrootesSpyedited-subbed.jpg

It's been a tough couple of months for those of us who believe that our communications should be private. The idea that no one really looks at our emails, or listens to our phone calls now appears to be all but dead. While we can, and no doubt will, blame those horrid Americans for this, the fact is almost every single leader in what we call the democratic world is to blame. Because almost every single one of them is taking part in this crime. And we're letting them do it. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

I've often been asked in the past whether I thought my phone was tapped. At first the idea seemed really quite thrilling. There's this romantic idea of Richard Mdluli hunched over a computer somewhere, celebrating the knowledge that on Fridays my wife and I prefer pizza, and on Saturdays Indian. But of course, it's that's really just pure ego. In fact most people's conversations must simply be so utterly boring as to drive most normal people to tears.

But as the saga sparked by Edward Snowden has continued to rage, with claims that now German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other leaders had their phones tapped, I've sort of expected some sort of reaction. You know, some sort of outrage that would eventually lead not just to promises of change, but to actual change itself.

And we've had some of the promise of change ritual. There was that phone call from Merkel to US President Barak Obama, in which he assured her that her phones were not tapped by his people. And then the revelation that his people were in fact not keeping him in the loop. I know. It's amazing really. To think that someone's spies lied to them. It must have come as quite a surprise to Obama to find out that there was spying going on in his spying establishment.

I'm no expert on German politics, even if I'm a great fan of Realpolitik. But I feel a sense of slightly manufactured outrage from Merkel. Even considering that as a child of the former East Germany, she would have grown up with her phone being tapped, and thus this would have a special resonance for her, it doesn't seem like she's really that surprised.

So then, if someone in her position, quite literally the supreme position in her country, where she has been the dominant political personality of the last decade isn't going to do something about an issue that clearly affects her, we have to ask why?

And while we're asking that, we also have to ask why it seems that in the US, the villain of this unfortunate piece, there seems to be no one really willing to take a stand on this issue. Politicians from both the Left and the Right, both the Democrats and the Republicans, seem to be defending phone tapping.

This in a country where privacy is supposed to be highly prized, where people are supposed to believe that their rights are protected. It is also a country where over a million people have what used to be called "top secret" clearance, which means there are hundreds of thousands of people who can listen to phone calls and read emails, just for the sheer entertainment value.

If ever a log of the most read emails and listened to calls were to be made available, it would seem very likely that people like Lady Gaga and that Kardashian crown would feature highly. And the phones of Miley and Billy-Ray Cyrus in the hours after this year's Grammy Awards. Which would prove how easy it is to abuse all of this.

Across Europe the picture appears to be the same. Some manufactured outrage, no real change.

It is clear this can only be because allowing phone tapping is to the benefit of the political classes, no matter which side of the aisle they're on. It doesn't matter if you're to the looney Left of the Stark-Raving Mad Loony Lefty Party, or if you're to the right of Steve Hofmeyr, in this case, everyone in the political elite seems to think that phone tapping is a Very Good Thing.

And this quite indicative of what seems to be the ever-growing gap between the rulers and the ruled, in democracies. The whole point of a Constitutional democracy like ours, is that this sort of thing is not supposed to happen, there are certain rules that the rulers cannot over-rule.

But as time has moved on, and the outsiders become political insiders, and those who become political leaders are actually professional politicians from the start of their careers, so there seem to be fewer voices from what could be called outside the political beltway, i.e. from inside the main VIP tent (the beltway, for those who are a little remiss on their reading of J Brooks Spector, refers to the highway network in Washington DC, those inside are politicians, those outside are not.)

This means that it would take real wholesale change in these places to stop phone tapping. In short, we'd have to throw all the bastards out and start again.

Here, things are little different. It's the politicians with their hands on the levers of power who use what they have to their advantage. And those who don't have that power, they just have to live with it, like Fikile Mbalula and that well-known business-facilitator Julius Malema in the run-up to Mangaung. Several trade union leaders are known for refusing to have a conversation in the presence of a cell-phone, whether it's off or on. And these are people inside the Alliance, don't forget. Presumably someone at the NIA's headquarters knows whether Helen Zille prefers pizza or Indian on Fridays too.

And while we're here, the NIA headquarters is a pretty big place. It's a massive campus near Pretoria. I'd tell you exactly where, but then I'd have to kill you. There are hundreds or thousands of people there, all day long. Presumably they're more productive than your average City of Jo’burg employee. But what exactly are they doing? It's a Parliamentary Question begging to be left unanswered by Siyabonga Cwele.

The main point of conflict in our politics on this issue is really around Mdluli. But there is plenty of other scope for people with the power to do so to really get up to naughtiness. To break into my Gmail account so they can read this piece just a few hours before it goes online for example. Or to see who my secret source in the Parliamentary wine cellar is. And quite frankly, at this stage I have no way of knowing that that's not happening.

This is what's most worrying about this shift in global public opinion. We don't really know what's being watched, read or listened to. And we're not even trying to find out. And if this what it's like now, it's easy to imagine that my two children really will grow up not in a later age than me, but in 1984. DM

Grootes is the author of SA Politics Unspun. He has no way of knowing whether it was being fact-checked by a nameless individual working for the NIA while it was still in PDF format. He's also the Senior Political Reporter for Eyewitness News, and the Host of the Midday Report. You don't need any spying skills to listen, you just need to put your radio on to Talk Radio 702 or 567 Cape Talk.

  • Stephen Grootes
    Grootes for DM.jpg
    Stephen Grootes

    Grootes is the host of the Midday Report on 702 and Cape Talk, and the Senior Political Correspondent for Eyewitness News. He's been part of the political hack pack since before the Polokwane Tsunami, and covers politics in a slightly obsessive manner. Those who love him have recommended help for his politics addiction. He quotes Amy Winehouse.

  • South Africa

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